Attorney General William Barr trashed the so-called resistance movement and mocked Senate Democrats – as well as the Oscar-nominated movie “Vice” – in a marathon speech Friday evening that affirmed his credentials as a staunch defender of presidential power.
Barr was at his most animated in the speech before a friendly crowd. But the substance of his remarks touched on some of the most serious issues facing the country now – including Congress’ ongoing investigations into President Donald Trump, and Barr’s department’s attempts to protect the White House from subpoenas during impeachment and other inquiries.
Before a crowd of high-powered attorneys at the annual confab of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group, the attorney general said the Democrats “have decided to drown the executive branch with oversight demands for testimony and documents.”
“I don’t deny that Congress has some implied authority, but the sheer volume of what we see today, the pursuit of scores of parallel investigations through an avalanche of subpoenas, is plainly designed to incapacitate the executive branch and indeed is touted as such,” Barr said.
Barr also invoked the movie “Vice” and a scene depicting a young Dick Cheney plotting a “new nefarious theory that will allow them to just take over the world”– by giving more power to the president. But Barr said the pushes by the president in recent administrations have attempted to keep the balance of powers in check.
“One of the more amusing aspects of modern progressive polemic is their breathless attacks on the unitary executive theory. Blah!” Barr said, pausing with his arms out and eyes bugging, as if imitating a ghost.
“They portray this as some newfangled theory to justify executive power of sweeping and unfettered scope,” he continued.
He also grew serious, describing the loosely organized movement of progressives known as the “resistance” as rhetorically akin to an insurgent group fighting against an “occupying military power,” implying that they believe the Trump administration wasn’t legitimate, which he called a “dangerous” and “indeed incendiary” vision.
“The fact of the matter is that, in waging a scorched earth, no-holds-barred war of “resistance” against this administration, it is the left that is engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and the undermining of the rule of law,” Barr said.
Barr saved some of his harshest fire for federal judges – who have routinely shot down attempts by the President to flex executive power and protect his administration’s choices – no matter their political motivations. He discussed judicial rulings that put Trump’s travel ban on hold, for instance.
Barr accused judges of acting “like amateur psychiatrists attempting to discern an executive official’s real motive, often after ordering invasive discovery into the executive branch’s privileged decision-making process.”
Barr has long adhered to a school of legal thought that draws a vision of uncompromising presidential power from the Constitution. That ideology, in line with the unitary executive theory, has guided conservatives for decades, including many of the lawyers in the crowd that Barr addressed Friday evening.
Barr first entered the Justice Department under President George H.W. Bush. As the head of the Office of Legal Counsel, he worked closely with the White House and produced a 10-page memo outlining a broad vision of the executive branch’s power to rebuff Congress’ oversight attempts.
He was selected for the role, he has said, because of his views on strong executive authority, and in his 1989 confirmation hearing for the office, he made clear that he believed the Justice Department owed loyalty to the administration.
“He is the president’s lawyer,” Barr said of the attorney general. “He is the lawyer for the Cabinet.”
On Friday night, Barr dug into history to make his point. Describing the writing of the founding governmental document at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Barr said, “the real miracle in Philadelphia that summer was the creation” of a strong independent executive.
Later, he turned his remarks toward Trump himself, saying the President “certainly has thrown out the traditional Beltway playbook and punctilio. He was upfront about what he wanted to do,” and voters elected him, he said. This line, too, drew applause.
CORRECTION: The story has been corrected to reflect that Barr likened progressive opponents of the Trump administration to an insurgent group fighting against an “occupying military power,” not to an occupying military power.